By These Means Necessary

John Nunes
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

f Lutheran theologian Paul Raabe, in A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times (Crossway 2000), is right, then an examination of any cultural group's practice of Christianity must be rooted in the religion and God of Israel: "The only hope for Hispanics or Chinese or Germans or Americans is to come to Zion and worship the God of Israel, not to build their own Gentile religion or Gentile temple." God's people live their earthly lives as a pilgrimage of faith based in a particular Christian spirituality. By faith, eyes, hearts, and hopes are fixed on the final city of God. But in the meantime, like Jesus in Jerusalem, God's people are to be passionately consumed with the things of the Father's house-"for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isa. 56:7).

A popular proverb says that "faith is lived most abundantly by looking forward, but faith is understood most completely by looking backward." Christian faith offers a fullness of life in Christ, leaning forward toward this soon-coming King of Kings while looking backward to the presence of God in his visible Word who won the victory of salvation by acting in history. It remembers deliverance's strong hand-"We've Come This Far by Faith"-even as it anticipates God's return in Christ-"Soon and Very Soon."

Faith's journey begins sacramentally with three splashes of water-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism is performed once, applying the eternal, once-and-for-all, life-giving benefits of Jesus' death and resurrection to his people. The ensuing pilgrimage's struggles do not make us more acceptable before God. No hajj, prayer-vigil, or cultural practice such as Kwanzaa can make us righteous before the Father. It is from their faith in Christ's righteousness that disciples embark on the perilous, cross-laden path that follows the rest-giving One who is calling out to them, "Come unto me."

On this journey, Christians may slip into sin or slide into doubt. But God's word of promise spoken at Baptism is not thereby broken. When we fall from our faith, Scripture does not tell us to get rebaptized. It tells us to reaffirm the faith of our Baptism-a faith that rests in God's promise (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 39).

Today, many people are going tragically off track, derailed by false doctrine. The Church has fallen for Satan's deceptive traps of humanly manufactured, plastic teaching-literally, plastoi logoi (2 Pet. 2:3)-and this has thrown her into crisis. But doctrinal corruption is seldom innovative; and so looking backward to Martin Luther's battle for the means of grace can be useful in our pluralistic times.

No Magic in These Means

Luther railed against Roman Catholicism's "magical" conception of the means of grace, charging it with devaluing both the potency and efficacy of God's Word. The devaluation of God's Word through a denial of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture is central to our modern Church crisis. Luther viewed God's Word as the power for the justification of everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), as well as the Church's only doctrinal norm.

In Luther's time, renewed appreciation for God's Word was prompted primarily by God's Spirit moving his people to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Bible-especially in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew. At the same time, late medieval humanism benefited the Reformation by its commitment to return to original sources, as expressed in the motto, Ad fontes! ("To the sources!"). This resulted in the reformers' investigating the teachings of the early Church. In this way, much of their work was catalyzed by the recovery of many stifled or forgotten voices.

Thus, Ambrose, the St. Augustine-mentoring bishop of Milan, influenced Luther's view of the Word and the Lord's Supper by linking the consecration of the bread and the cup of Communion with the speaking of God's Word-specifically, with the repetition of Jesus' words as Paul reports them in 1 Corinthians 11. In contrast, by the time of the Reformation the so-called transubstantiation of the elements into Christ's body and blood had been linked to a human uttering, a human prayer. Ambrose helped Luther see that this view had not always been the case by observing that in all that is said prior to the moment of consecration, "the priest offers praise to God and renders intercession for the people, for the kings, and for others. But at the point where the Holy Sacrament is effected, the priest no longer employs his own speech but the speech of Christ." Thus, with the Lord's Supper as with Baptism, it is God's Word that affects the Sacrament. And so there is no magic in these means of grace.

Luther's affirmation of Scripture as the Church's only doctrinal norm extended to what Scripture says makes a Sacrament. He consequently came to see that Sacraments were not made through incantations, smells (incense), or bells (which were rung at key points during mass). Over against such sacramental mechanism in Roman Catholicism, the reformers restored God's Word to a central place.

Lutherans use the word Sacrament to refer to ceremonies instituted in Christ's preaching. They identify three: Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution. Each of these external rites are signs of the entire gospel, testimonies of the remission of sins or of reconciliation, that convey God's grace to his pilgrim people, given for Christ's sake and proclaimed in his Word.

A Battle from Both Sides

Some Church historians, especially among the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, accuse the reformers of dismantling essential church systems. Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and other Protestants are repeatedly accused of sowing the seeds for the innumerable denominations that have sprouted, especially in American soil, with the decline of pastoral authority and the rise of Pentecostalism. For example, German Catholic theologian Hans Kng claims that there "is no doubt that in fact enthusiasm very largely triumphed over Luther."

Enthusiasm, commonly understood, involves positive, passionate energy. Without this kind of enthusiasm nothing great is ever accomplished. But this is not the way that reformational Christians understand it. For us, the word enthusiasm possesses a technical and negative sense. It refers to those fanatical, heretical "ravers" (Schwaermer in German) who boast that "God dwells in them" (en-theou). These enthusiasts maintain that God deals directly and immediately with human beings-apart from the external, objective Word and the Sacraments. Modern-day church ravers manipulate their hearers emotionally, especially in evangelism.

Frankly, I find God's promise to work through Word, water, bread, and wine to be a greater source of strength and divine engagement than any unbiblical claim that God will work in us directly and immediately. Yes, God's Spirit, like the wind, blows where he wills, and one must never quench the Spirit; but "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). A means-of-grace based theology like Luther's can generate exuberant faith. In fact, as Melanchthon said, it is enthusiasm, technically understood, that can lead to "dissolute," "indolent, and sluggish" spirituality.

Often when I emphasize in Bible classes that the Spirit usually works through the designated means of grace, it prompts questions like, "Well, can't God just touch us directly?" or "Are you telling me that God can't come to me in a dream?" Double-edged questions like these are pastorally and philosophically tricky. Pastorally, we know that Christ's love compels us to give every answer with "gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15)-without doing more damage than wretched presuppositions like these are already doing to our questioners. Philosophically, whenever someone asks a question that starts, "Can God…?," the answer is almost always, "Yes." So after conceding God's ability, I raise a question frequently found on the lips of our Pentecostal friends, "God is bound to his Word, isn't he?" In Scripture, God reveals how he has bound himself regarding his dispensation of forgiveness and grace. Word, water, bread, and wine are his self-designated means. Here Jesus' words through father Abraham to the rich man whose greed gained him hell can help: "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

Luther's battle for the priority of Scripture and Sacraments as the means of grace was fought, then, not only with Roman Catholics. To the Scylla of Rome was added the Charybdis of the enthusiasts. "Suddenly," Luther said, "there arise fanatical spirits [who] … in a short time … subvert everything that we had been building for such a long time and with so much sweat." In his customary caustic way, Luther ascribes the rise of these sectarian opinions to the devil. Modern confessional evangelicals find themselves between a similar rock and hard place. In addition, however, we have an encroaching pluralism that is striking at concepts such as objective truth.

The Reformation Continues

Luther proclaimed that the Church always needed to be reformed-ecclesia semper reformanda. Biblically faithful women and men must fight relentlessly to reclaim the reformational solae: sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone!"), sola gratia ("Grace alone!"), sola fide ("Faith alone!"), solus Christus ("Christ alone!"), and soli Deo gloria ("Glory to God alone!"). We must continue reforming the Church at the rocks and hard places that we now find ourselves between.

During the Reformation, debates raged over both the number and definitions of the Sacraments. Today, we must confront theological pluralism and religious syncretism if we are to maintain that women and men can be saved in only one way-by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

In his day, Luther felt compelled to denounce those who were co-opting the term evangelical. Today, to hear the preaching and see the piety of many so-called evangelicals is, likewise, to encounter a plethora of ideas about God and faith. Where Word and Sacrament do not link the holy God and human faith, we find sentimentalism and subjectivism. People seek to experience God's power directly and immediately. And, consequently, at the level of much popular piety, knowledge about God is confined to the domain of feelings, emotions, and "heartfelt" religion.

When we think about our hearts, we often start with a skewed definition. In Jewish-Christian thought, the heart is much more than emotions and feelings. It is the seat of our personalities (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 84:2), the source of our vitality (Josh. 5:1; Ezek. 21:6, 7), the wellspring of courage (2 Sam. 22:46; Ps. 27:3), the root of our rationality (1 Kings 3:12; Prov. 2:2), and the center of our moral character (Deut. 8:2; Matt. 5:8). Scripture seldom uses the word heart to refer simply to feelings and emotions. And no wonder, since basing our assurance of eternal salvation on feelings and emotions sets us up for a wild roller coaster ride of religious highs and lows.

Today, especially, we should remember that salvation comes from outside us-extra nos-by means of our hearing God's external, objective Word. As pilgrims, our hearts must be firmly grounded in the strength of this Word. Psalm 84:5 alludes to this when it says: "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage." This Psalm's last phrase literally translates as "in whose heart are the highways to Zion" (esv). These are the roads trustingly taken in life, the discipleship decisions made, the concrete confidence a believer has that God's Word as it is found in the Scriptures can be a "lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Ps. 119:105).

The truth and efficacy of God's Word is under attack in our pluralistic society. In conscious contrast, we must preach and teach it with zeal, zest, and accuracy. In the end, we confront our pluralistic and syncretistic time with words, just words-but they are the powerful, efficacious words of the gospel. The Church is meant to be the "mouth house" of God. We know that it is God's Word that presents Christ; it is this Word, spoken by us, that is the means through which God speaks. Where God's Word is present, the Holy Spirit is working; and where the Holy Spirit is working, things are happening: disciples are being made, sin is being jettisoned, lives are being transformed, communities are improving. In the end, "the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8).

The Means Are Meant for Every Tribe and Every Nation

Sunday morning service is still the most segregated hour of the week in America. We have been successful to a fault in reversing the diversity of Pentecost. This is due in part to our church growth mania that often succumbs covertly to the sacrilegious principle of homogeneous units. Most American churches are monocultural islands in a sea of multiethnic opportunity. "I do not agree with those who cling to one language and despise all others," Martin Luther declared. "The Holy Spirit did not act like that in the beginning. He did not wait till all the world came to Jerusalem and studied Hebrew, but gave manifold tongues for the office of the ministry, so that the apostles could preach wherever they might go. I prefer to follow this example. It is also reasonable that the young should be trained in many languages; for who knows how God may use them in times to come?"

Luther's words loom large in our rapidly increasing multilingual reality. We who are committed to the truth and efficacy of God's external, objective Word ought to scrutinize the curricula we employ and the languages we use, perhaps especially in those regions where there is a rapid rise of Spanish language and cultures. Demographers suggest there are seventeen emerging Hispanic subcultures in the United States, and in some areas of the nation the Hispanic presence is growing 400 percent faster than any other ethnic group.

In a pluralistic and syncretistic time like ours, the watchword of many is "tolerance." The way to celebrate and embrace diversity is to be tolerant. This invocation of tolerance can approach the level of religion. For some, this thinking is a kind of faith in the secular, civic realm. These secular religionists dismiss the preaching of God's Word as unhelpful even as they view secular tolerance as salvific. For others, tolerance has become an essential part of their religion. Their churches possess their own rare, in-house language, their own predictable patterns of ritualized behavior, and their own approved liturgies of social orthodoxy. But the difference between this and true religion is simple: true religion rests on biblical truth and its practice requires the recognition of transcendence-of God's coming to us from outside our cultures by means of his external, objective Word and his other self-designated means of grace-and of the need for relational depth. The creeds of tolerance are artificial, earthbound, and surprisingly superficial in an age allegedly yearning for authenticity. Tolerance's proponents dismiss the "otherworldly" and distrust absolutes with an ironic, dogmatic ardor often tinged with self-righteousness.

Attempts to create righteous and socially correct communities apart from the gospel are always contrived. They may scratch at sin's superficial symptoms but they cannot cure its deadly plague. Their treatments may seem salutary but they are, in fact, deeply unhealthy since they are only skin deep.

In contrast, God's designated means of reconciling human beings with himself have multiple dimensions. In the preaching and teaching of his Word, in Baptism and the Lord's Supper, God creates a connection to himself by faith. The promise of life in God is conveyed to the baptized through water and the Word. Inherited sin is thereby exchanged for Christ's righteousness and full and free forgiveness is extended. A new orientation and destination is adopted and a new pilgrimage begins.

On this journey, our fellow-travelers change forever. We must seek inclusive fellowships that confess trinitarian truth. Authentic multiethnic communities should come out of baptismal and eucharistic living, as John's vision of robed palm-branch wavers from every nation, tribe, people, and language attests (Rev. 7: 9-12). These communities cannot be manufactured, manipulated, or replicated merely by raising ethnic consciousness.

We must lay claim bravely to that which has already claimed all of us who believe and are baptized and, thus, become a community of one Lord,one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5). This water is "thicker" than any blood except the blood of Christ by which our sin has been washed away. God's self-designated means of grace bind us together more effectively than any sociological principle. What he has joined together in Baptism, and what he keeps together at the table of Holy Communion, no racism, no sexism, or no ethnocentrism can ever put asunder.

So it is this kind of sacramental spirituality that defines who we are when we say "we." Who are we? Well, we are those who have put our faith in the gospel, who have been baptized, and who together celebrate Communion.

The Church has a long way to go, but it has a helpful legacy and a glorious future. Along its pilgrims' way, it has a God who feeds his weary people with his gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation as conveyed by the Sacraments that Christ instituted in his preaching. God's Word, water, bread, and wine really are bread from heaven that make us, his weary pilgrim people, fresh and clean. The prolific Welsh hymnwriter, William Williams (1717-1791) expressed this poetically:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land.I am weak, but Thou art mighty; Hold me with Thy pow'rful hand.Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more.
Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology